[Comment by Rosie Perera: This article was written by a friend of mine from Regent College who is also in my Dante reading group. It was originally published in his church newsletter, accompanied by an invitation to his fellow Vancouverites to come join him for contra dancing, with the particulars. I've edited that part out. I thought the topic was fascinating though. Sorina and I have had some back and forth about this article before I posted it here, and we'll be following up with our discussion about it in the comments. Posted and editied with permission of the author.]
During the first two decades of my life the people in my world didn’t talk or think much about the sacraments. If the topic ever came up it was treated with suspicion, perhaps contempt, and - I dare say - ignorance. Over the course of the next four decades my experience of, and thinking about, the sacraments has evolved; now they are central to my understanding of the faith.
“Sacrament” has to do with “sacred” or “holy.” In one sense only God is holy; but because the trinitarian, that is, relational, God has entered the created world, everything is now holy - touched by grace, held in the gaze of divine love. All of life has become sacramental. Communion allows us to see all meals as holy, as opportunities to experience grace. Baptism changes the basic pattern of how we live our lives, in fact, turns it upside down. Marriage is always a reflection of God’s loving relationship with his bride, his people.
Yet, even though we are invited to see all of life as sacramental, there is something special about some of the sacraments. A sacrament (in this special sense) is a practise, an activity with something tangible: water, bread, wine, oil, bodies (hands, taste buds, skin, and so on). A practise which allows us to experience God’s immanence, God’s incarnational presence in the ordinary things and activities of daily life. The Eucharist, for instance, opens up in two directions at once: by receiving and consuming bread and wine, we receive - once again - the gift of eternal life which is meant to transform us in all that we are and do. We receive grace (salvation, love, the gifts of the Spirit) so that grace can flow out from us every moment of every day.
One can think of a sacrament as a powerful metaphor, a metaphor big enough to inhabit, a metaphor (image, practise) significant enough to transform us. I have already mentioned three sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, marriage. Lutherans recognize two special sacraments; Catholics have seven. I have discovered another one, and so I propose an eighth.
Dancing. Now all kinds of dancing could be seen as sacramental in that broader more general sense I discussed above; but I’m thinking of a particular kind of dancing - contra dancing. It has become a special sacrament for me, a means of grace, a metaphor for how we are meant to live, trusting one another, staying light on our feet, letting go as well as reaching out to each other, being in a generous relationship with “partners” and “neighbours,” listening to the music, being willing to risk and make mistakes, forgiving one another, and getting on with life without remaining stuck in regrets.
I guess other kinds of group folk dancing could work equally well, dancing in a circle for instance (like Israeli dancing; which makes me think of the song, “Draw the Circle Wide,” found in our hymnal). But it is contra dancing that has become part of my life on a regular basis. From September to June, on the first Saturday and the second Friday of each month, at St James’ Hall, a live band and a good caller lead the people who gather in a series of lively dances. There is laughter and good will among the participants who range in age from under ten to over seventy. One goes away at the end of the evening feeling very good.
I think it is quite appropriate that these dances are held in a church building named after the apostle who emphasized that faith needs to be put into practise. I believe it is also appropriate that the building is no longer used for church services; this reminds me that for followers of Jesus the boundary between “sacred” and “secular,” between “religious” and “everyday” has been erased. Because of the sacraments all of life is holy.
The best part of contra dancing is that I am able to “get out of my head and into my feet,” into my body. And (horror!) here I am turning this sacrament back into disembodied words which you may toss around in your head for a while before forgetting it.